The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments, found in various forms all over the world. It is a chordophone (string instrument).

(Public domain image from Websters Dictionary 1911. Full size image)

Origins of the Harp

It may have been invented when people found that the sound of a plucked bow string sounded nice, and added extra strings to the bow. The oldest documented reference to the harp is as long ago as 3000 BCE, in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The harp is mentioned in the Bible, ancient epics, even in Egyptian wall paintings. Today, there are two main types of modern harps: folk and concert. Different kinds of folk harps are found all over the world.

The European harp first appeared in Ireland and is the national symbol, appearing on all its coins from the Middle Ages to the new Euro coins, 2002, and on all official Government of Ireland seals and stationery.

Harps are triangular and have nylon, gut, wire, and/or copper wound nylon strings. Most harps have a single row of strings with seven notes per octave. Harpists can tell which notes they are playing because all F strings are black or blue and all C strings are red or orange. The instrument rests between the knees of the harpist and along their right shoulder. One exception is the Welsh Triple Harp which is traditionally placed on the left shoulder. The first four fingers on each hand are used to pluck the strings: the pinky fingers are too short and cannot reach the correct position without distorting the position of the other fingers. Plucking with various degrees of forcefulness creates dynamics. Depending on finger position, different sounds can be produced: a "fleshy" pluck (near the middle of the first finger joint) will make a warm tone, and a pluck near the end of the finger will make a loud, bright sound.

Harp technique

There are two main methods of harp technique: the French (or Grandjany) method and the Salzedo method. Neither method has a definite majority among harpists, but the issue of which is better is a source of friction and debate. The distinguishing features of the Salzedo method are the encouragement of expressive gestures, elbows remain parallel to the ground, wrists are comparatively stiff, and neither arm ever touches the soundboard. The French method advocates lowered elbows, fluid wrists, and the right arm resting lightly on the soundboard. In both methods, the shoulders, neck, and back are relaxed. Some harpists combine the two methods into their own version that works best for them.

In addition to those techniques, which are suitable for modern pedal harps with their very high string tension, in recent years some harpists have been developing another technique - the so called: "thumb under" technique - which is more suitable for lower string tensions, as they are found on most historical harps. This technique takes baroque performance practices as its starting point. In the absence of much evidence on historical harp techniques, harpists have taken their lead from lute and early keyboard techniques.

As in all baroque instrumental techniques, the underlying principle is that of strong and weak articulation. The player only uses three fingers of each hand, and - as the name implies - the thumb moves under the other fingers, rather than being held very high, as in modern harp technique. The thumb and third fingers are "strong" fingers and the second finger is a "weak" finger. Scales are fingered alternating strong and weak fingers - that is, a scale fingering could be either 1 2 1 2 1 2 or 3 2 3 2 3 2. This technique produces a mellow, well articulated sound on harps with low string tension. It also avoids large movements of the wrists and arms, since on low-tension harps, much less force is required than on modern high tension ones.

The pedal harp

The pedal harp has six and a half octaves (47 strings), weighs about 80 pounds, and is approximately 6 feet high and 4 feet wide at the widest. The notes range from three octaves below middle C to three and a half octaves above (landing on G). The pressure of the strings on the sound board is roughly equal to a ton. The lowest strings are made of copper wound nylon, the middle strings of gut, and the highest of nylon. The pedal harp uses pedals to change the pitcheses of the strings. There are seven pedals, one for each note. When a pedal is moved, it rotates a wheel at the top of the harp. This wheel is studded with two pegs which pinch the string then they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The pedal has three positions. In the top position no pegs are in contact with the string and all notes are flat. In the middle position the top wheel pinches the string resulting in a natural. In the bottom position another wheel is turned shortening the string to create a sharp. This mechanism is called the double-action pedal system, invented by Sébastien Erard in 1810.

Folk harps/lever harps

The folk harp ranges in size from two octaves to about six octaves, and uses levers to change the pitches. The most common form is 33 strings: two octaves below middle C and two and a half above (landing on G). The strings are made of nylon or gut, except for a few special kinds strung with wire and played with the fingernails. At the top of each string is a lever; when it is raised, it shortens the string so its pitch is raised a half-step, resulting in a sharp if the string was in natural.

Multi-course harps

A multi-course harp is a harp with more than one row of strings. A harp with only one row of strings is called a single-course harp.

A double harp consists of two rows of diatonic strings one on either side of the neck. These strings may run parallel to each other or may converge so the bottom ends of the strings are very close together. Either way, the strings that are next to each other are tuned to the same note. Double harps often have levers either on every string or on the strings that are most commonly sharped. (for example C and F) Having two sets of strings allows the harpist left and right hands to occupy the same range of notes without having both hands attempt to play the same string at the same time. It also allows for special effects such as repeating a note very quickly with out stopping the sound from the previous note.

A triple harp features three rows of parallel strings, two outer rows of diatonic strings (natural notes), and a center row of chromatic strings (sharps). To play a sharp, the harpist reaches in between the strings in either outer row and plucks the center row string. Like the double harp, the two outer rows of strings are tuned the same, but the triple harp has no levers. This harp originated in Italy in the sixteenth century as a low headed instrument, and towards the end of 1600s it arrived in Wales where it developed a high head and larger size. It established itself as part of Welsh tradition and became known as the Welsh Harp. The traditional design has all of the strings strung from the left side of the neck, but modern neck designs have the two outer rows of strings strung from opposite sides of the neck to greatly reduce the tendency for the neck to roll over to the left.

The cross harp consists of one row of diatonically tuned strings and another row of chromatic notes. These strings cross approximately in the middle of the string without touching. Traditionally the diatonic row runs from the right (as seen by someone sitting at the harp) side of the neck to the left side of the sound board. The chromatic row runs from the left of the neck to the right of the sound board. The diatonic row has the normal string coloration for a harp, but the chromatic row may be black. The chromatic row is not a full set of strings. It is missing the strings between the Es and Fs in the diatonic row and between the Bs and Cs in the diatonic row. In this respect it is much like a piano. The diatonic row corresponds to the white keys and the chromatic row to the black keys. Playing each string in sucession results in a complete chromatic scale.


In South America, there are Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, and Paraguayan harps. They are similar to Spanish harps: wide on the bottom and narrow at the top, with perfect balance when being played but unable to stand independently for lack of a base. The Paraguayan harp is the most popular, and is Paraguay's national instrument. It has about 36 strings with narrower spacing and lighter tension than other harps, and so has a slightly (four to five notes) lower pitch. It does not necessarily have the same string coloration as the other harps. For example, some Paraguayan harps may have red B's and blue E's instead of red C's and blue F's. This harp is also played mostly with the fingernails.

Almost every other culture has a form of the harp. In Asia, the koto is a kind of lyre, a close relative of the harp. Africa has the kora.

Ancient Rome and Greece played lyres, similar to harps but not triangular. The Aeolian harp is played by wind blowing through the strings.

The harp is used sparingly in most classical music, usually for special effects such as the glissando, arpeggios, and bisbigliando. Italian and German opera uses harp for romantic arias and dances, an example of which is Musetta's Waltz from La Bohème. French composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel composed harp concertos and chamber music widely played today. Henriette Renie and Marcel Grandjany have composed many lesser-known solo pieces and chamber music. Modern composers utilize the harp frequently because the pedals on a concert harp allow many sorts of non-diatonic scales and strange accidentals to be played (although some modern pieces call for impractical pedal manipulations).

Lyon and Healy, Camac, and other manufacturers also make electric harps. The electric harp is a concert harp, with microphone pickups at the base of each string and an amplifier. The electric harp is significantly heavier than an acoustic harp, but looks the same.

Harps are a part of the mythologies of many cultures. In Irish mythology, a magical harp is possessed by The Dagda. In the Bible King David is a harpist, and angels sometimes play harps.

The Harp as a symbol of Ireland

The harp has been used as a political symbol of Ireland for centuries. It was used to symbolise Ireland in the Royal Standard of King James VI/I of Scotland, England and Ireland in 1603 and had continued to feature on all English, British and United Kingdom Royal Standards ever since, though the style of harp used differed on some Royal Standards. It was also used Commonweath Jack of Oliver Cromwell, issued in 1649 and on the Protectorate Jack issued in 1658 as well as on the Lord Protector's Standard issued on the succession of Richard Cromwell in 1658.

Independent Ireland continued to use the harp as its state symbol, it featuring both on the coat of arms and on the Presidential Standard. Ireland's most famous drink, Guinness, also uses a harp, but in reverse, as its corporate logo. A lager called Harp is also produced.

External links

Harp is also a slang term for diatonic harmonica.